“Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.”
An envoy, Ai, from outer space arrives at a planet create an alliance between them and the planet Winter. This new society differs vastly from his own; the inhabitants are bisexual and enter kemmer where there sex changes to either male or female and they may procreate. Every citizen has the possibility of becoming pregnant and there is no difference in who might carry which task.
This premise in itself is interesting, but there is so much more to the story of the planet of Winter. Ai’s job is essentially to create political allies. Estraven is prime minister of Karhide, a country of Winter, and he is interested in helping, but Ai is unsure whether he can trust him. On the day that Estraven has given Ai audience with the King, Estraven is labelled as a traitor and banned from Karhide.
LeGuin herself has emphasized that “the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender … it is a book about betrayal and fidelity.” Later she has modified this statement somewhat, but I find that it still holds true: the focus is not the gender, but the political intrigue and friendship. While politics and intrigue are inevitably shaped by the sexual drives of humanity, the absense of sexuality serves to highlight this and explore the nature of friendship with and without sexual attraction.
I certainly would not label this book feminist, and it doesn’t have to be. It does somewhat highlight the absurdity of gender, but the politics, the friendships, treachery and alliances that take place on Winter mirror our own society in ways that go so far beyond gender that it returns and settles once more on the fact that women wear dresses and men do not.